The Authenticity Experiment, the velocity made good edition. Sometimes we are given the great gift of seeing the velocity made good in our lives. This is a term from sailing that describes the actual speed a vessel is making on its intended course. Because they must tack back and forth, submitting to the vagaries of the wind, sailors track velocity made good, that is: true progress based on all the zigs and zags, dog legs, and random turns you make in order to catch the wind.
A few weeks ago I got to spend time with a woman who—in many ways—was a version of my younger self. But, in other crucial ways, this woman was 180 degrees opposite of my younger self. Of course, if you ask psychologist Harville Hendrix, he’d say that 180 degrees opposite is actually the same person (and their wounds) presented in a mirror. So, I guess any way you cut it, I saw some part of myself reflected back and could see where I’d been and where I now found myself.
If you asked me how different I am today than I was 20 years ago, I’d say different. But maybe not drastically different. I mean there is the 90 pounds of weight loss (that’s not a typo), there’s the divorce, there’s the dating that I never did as a teen or young 20-something. And there’s the softening. Still.
What does that mean, the softening? In one way, it means I’m better at gray. One of the few poems the Opera Singer published was called “Gray.” If I am remembering correctly, she wrote it on the Oregon Coast after we had a terrible conversation—a conversation that opened a chasm between us that would ultimately undermine our entire relationship. In the poem, she wrote: “there is black/or white yes/or no us/or them.”
She wrote that ten years ago—this month, I think. Ten years ago things did seem so much more black or white, so “good/or bad rarely/maybe in my head.” And twenty years ago—well before we knew each other, the Opera Singer and I—how much more rigid were we both? I know what she told me of herself and I know how I viewed the world at 33. We both thought right and wrong, good and bad, success or not, that these ideas and ideals truly existed.
I remember striving so hard at 23, at 33, even still at 43, the yearning to know more, to understand the world through books and history, to find the exact right proof point to make you—yes, you—understand exactly what I meant when I said what I said in such an exacting manner.
Example: As an undergrad, back in the early 80s—when Vietnam did not seem so far away—I read every history and memoir I could find, so I’d understand the adults around me. Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Tim O’Brien’s “If I Die In A Combat Zone,” and Phillip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War” informed me as a person (and as a writer, but that is for a craft talk and not an Authenticity Experiment).
What if I didn’t know about the Gulf of Tonkin, the Pentagon Papers, or the Tet Offensive? What if I didn’t understand the economic effects of the military industrial complex? Would Tim Hansen think less of me? Would Frank Cousens think I was even more of a dolt than I believed he already did? How could I contribute to the conversation if I wasn’t educated?
And what if I could not quote Alexander Pope? Would you out there believe I failed to understand the Enlightenment? Finally, god forbid I shouldn’t be able to spout off a few lines of Wordsworth? To understand the beginnings of transcendentalism, isn’t this just as important as, well, as, well, it is important, right?
I could do this for hours, for pages, but you see my point. Was this behavior pretentious? Maybe. But more so it seems sad to me now, indicative of my tiny problem with perfectionism. Of trying to be seen. To fit in. Of hoping for recognition as talented and gifted. Of attempting to make progress along what I once believed to be my charted course. All the while pretending not to care if you didn’t think I was smart, a #brilliantdapper, a good writer (as cool as I am).
What this striving led to for both me and the Opera Singer was depression. In my case, crippling depression at 14, at 22, at 30, at 41, at 50 (oh look, it’s almost always 8 year cycles). Because you can’t keep up that relentless drive. Or, if you prefer, I couldn’t keep up that ceaseless momentum.
This woman I was with, we were on a vacation together. And ultimately I managed to slow down enough to drive at what my ex-wife and I used to call “vacation speed.” That’s about 40 mph regardless of the posted speed limit and it includes u-turns with no regret or chagrin. It includes stopping where you want and when you want, no explanation required.
Vacation speed is not concerned with velocity made good or reaching any destination in particular. Vacation speed doesn’t care if you achieve anything more than a good tan—and maybe only on the arm that’s hanging out the car window. Vacation speed is only concerned with what if. What if we see what’s down this road? What if we leave when we wake up? What if we just stare at the water and never get past page 45 in our respective books? What if—and here’s a radical thought for our monkey minds—what if we are just in the moment? What if we are neither rehearsing nor rehashing? What if we make room for more more gray in our heads?
That’s where 53 seems to have deposited me—on a remote beach with more room for gray and less need for velocity or progress. And I hope it is more or less permanent, this location. There is you over there with your feelings and your ideas and your knowledge, and there is me over here with mine. And neither one of us has to be right or wrong, or smarter or lesser. It’s not black or white. It’s just gray, with the two of us sitting here, quietly being. What a relief.